- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 28, 2003

America is in a crisis.Natural gas prices are the highest in the world.As a result, thousands of Americans are losing their jobs and millions more are paying high utility bills.

Ammonia producers in the state of Louisiana have already been forced to close six plants over the past three years and send 3,000 jobs overseas. Prices that citizens normally pay to heat their homes and stay warm this winter could still double or triple.

Natural gas is the fuel of choice for most Americans.It is more environmentally friendly than coal or nuclear power and more than half of our homes use natural gas for heating, cooking and electricity.Almost all plastics and all the products produced by the petrochemical industry that can be found in your kitchen start out with natural gas as a raw material source. Farmers use natural gas to produce the fertilizer needed for crops that put food on our tables.

But natural gas supplies are shrinking due to the federal government placing heavy restrictions on the exploration for natural gas offshore and on non-park federal lands.The problem is not that we have a shortage of natural gas in America.Our country is blessed with an abundance of natural gas resources — enough to meet our needs for several generations.The problem is that we cannot access these abundant reserves because they are locked down with governmental regulations and restrictions.

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan made three appearances on Capitol Hill over the past few months to address this looming problem. During his testimony before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which I chair, Mr. Greenspan adamantly stated that there must be an agreeable tradeoff between environmental and energy concerns.

He is right. There is a real conflict in our public policy when it comes to natural gas.On one hand, we have been encouraging the use of natural gas as an environmentally friendly, clean-burning and economical fuel for decades.But on the other, the government has been allowing environmental regulations to restrict access to America’s abundant supplies of natural gas — thus causing the “artificial” shortage we now face.

When our committee asked Mr. Greenspan what the government could do in the short term to help avert the potential natural gas crisis, his answer was quite plainly “nothing.” In my opinion this is not an acceptable answer from our chief economist.

Too much of the nation’s economy depends on natural gas as a raw material source.When businesses cannot afford natural gas in terms of their competitive position with foreign producers, Americans lose jobs and the U.S. economy suffers. We cannot afford to have another economic downslide just as we are beginning to recover from the last one.

Fortunately, House Speaker Dennis Hastert has recognized the seriousness of this problem by forming an 18-member congressional Task Force For Affordable Natural Gas and appointing the Chairman of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Richard Pombo, California Republican, and myself as co-chairmen. Before the federal government can address the looming natural gas problem, Congress must seriously and thoroughly understand the issue and the ramifications of our current policies.

Therefore, we have used the month of August to conduct a comprehensive review around the country of the status of our transportation systems and of the options available for dealing with what could be a very serious crisis. Members of the task force have been holding public field meetings in their districts in an effort to better understand the problem and to deal with it.

In early August, I held a town hall meeting at the Dow chemical plant in Hahnville, Louisiana.Plant managers and employees have been doubly hit because they use natural gas as both a feedstock for products and as a fuel to generate power. High prices have caused the plant to shift much of its production overseas and enact wage freezes in Louisiana. They expressed their concerns about the need for a workable energy plan that will keep down the strangling costs of natural gas.Bear in mind that this is not a unique problem for my state — it is happening all around the country.

We do not know what the outcome of the task force’s efforts will be at this time.But our intention is to continue to gather information and report back to the speaker by September 30 with suggestions on short- and long-term solutions in time for both Congress and President Bush to take some action before we close this session of Congress.

Our number one goal is to deliver a brand-new energy policy that reflects the needs of the 21st century. Access to affordable natural gas is clearly one of this country’s most urgent needs, and our new policy must allow for more natural gas exploration, development and transport to meet them.

Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

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